HARBOUR Voices, a group of 20 or so Dorset based men and women, has just concluded a short Artsreach tour with their vibrant celebration of the sea. It was a tour that was just about sold out too and if you missed it, you missed an absolute treat.
With a programme of new songs and traditional shanties, advance publicity had told us to expect to be moved, amused, intrigued and inspired. We were not disappointed – Harbour Voices had last night’s audience enthralled as they sang and recounted their tales of the sea.
Based in Lyme Regis where, of course, the sea is an ever present force, and under the expert musical direction of Penny Dunscombe, Harbour Voices gave us as fine an ensemble performance as one could wish for. Dunscombe’s sensitive musical arrangements, all of which were a cappella, allowed the words of the songs to speak for themselves – indeed we could hear virtually all of them. They were also skilfully crafted to the strengths of the group, of which there were very many. Top of my list would be that the singers, apart from knowing their stuff of course, were really listening to each other, the consequence, no doubt, of much hard work on her part. The end result was well worth the effort and the blending of the voices was superb by any standards, maybe all the more noteworthy given that Harbour Voices is entirely made up of amateurs. Although initially an all-comers ensemble, presumably to help get it off the slipway, this blending was such a strong feature of the performance that a rigorous audition process must surely now be in force.
There were some fine and characterful voices amongst the group too, and although it is perhaps a little unfair to single out people in such a show as this (especially when the programme itself made it well-nigh impossible to identify individuals), Julian Shaw amongst the men was outstanding. His rousing rendition of South Australia, for example, was full of verve and one of the real highlights of the evening.
Perhaps the most significant individual contribution however came from Gail McGarva (pictured), singer, song-writer and surely one of the only female boat-builders on the south coast. Her lovely Call of the Cobb and poignant Tale of the Female Shipwright, which told the story of a woman forced to disguise herself as a man in order to enter a traditionally male domain, were among several new songs in last night’s show and in Penny Dunscombe’s haunting arrangements, were definitely five-star numbers. But if I had to single out one piece it would be her Call of the Boatbuilder sung by McGarva herself along with arranger Penny Dunscombe and Sue Beckers. An intensely personal song describing how it feels to be the builder of traditional wooden boats, this song above all others had the audience completely rapt. “Please remember, when you’re set free on the sea, who made thee; the hands of a loving heart.” Exquisite.
Although there must have been a risk that a programme such as this could end up just a bit samey, I need not have worried on that score. Clever, balanced programming meant that we never once lost attention. Lively work songs were interspersed with melancholy ballads while the fascinating bits of background information that were fed to us from time to time enabled us to identify closely with the lives of the people about whom and by whom these songs were written. And with the words of many of the choruses printed in our programmes, those of us who felt so inclined could join in some of the more rousing numbers too.
As well as being good to listen too, the performance was, from start to finish, an absolute delight to watch. It was simply staged, a few fishing nets, ropes, floats and a bit of atmospheric lighting for the set, while the performers themselves were suitably decked out in black waistcoats, skirts, boots and the like. It was all highly effective. But it was the subtle movement and grouping on the stage that really had me captivated. With an occasional gesture or look and, from time to time, the simplest of dance steps, the visual side of things was never ever dull and the show flowed seamlessly from start to finish. There was a keen eye at work here, make no mistake.
All credit to Harbour Voices, Artsreach and the local organisers at Sturminster Marshall for giving us a wonderful evening. I shall certainly be keeping my eyes and ears open for the opportunity of hearing them again.